Faith and (art)works
Catholicism is the common thread connecting a sculptor, a director, a poet, an actress, and a playwright in Cristian Murphy’s documentary Masterpieces. Released in 2019, it marked the 20th anniversary of now St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists.” The letter remarks, “Not all are called to be artists in the specific sense of the term. Yet, as Genesis has it, all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.”
While the film has a special poignancy for artists, it serves as a guide for all looking to more deeply integrate their faith and the particular vocation to which they are called. The viewer is struck by the organic way the different artists harmonize their faith and craft throughout the work. Murphy, being a Catholic artist himself, sees his faith as a source of creative inspiration, so he does not get caught up in the novelty of a Catholic that is also an artist. Instead, he delves into the mystery of this call that Catholic artists have, which ultimately gives the documentary its depth and dynamism.
Madison Mitchell is the actress the film highlights. In the documentary, she discusses how her parents set a solid faith foundation in her life by always going to Mass on Sundays even on performance days. Still, she struggled to articulate the connection she felt between her faith and her craft for some time. Mitchell mentions, “I think when I connected my artistic career/ vocation with the spiritual aspect, it maybe was happening more subconsciously before I had the language to identify it as that.”
St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” helped her express this connection more eloquently. Mitchell continued, “When I first heard and read St. Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to the Artist”... I was like, that’s me! … I felt like, it’s not weird, it’s not crazy. This is a call, and it’s a vocation. And that really gave me this boost of [being able] to totally identify myself as a Catholic artist, and that’s wonderful, and I love it.”
Talking with Murphy, he recognizes that many young Catholic artists struggle with reconciling their faith with their drive to create. Murphy related, “I made [Masterpieces] as a letter to the 18-year-old version of myself. That is the movie I wish I had when I was 18 when I was discerning everything in life. There are so many great movies out there about if you are discerning priesthood and if you are discerning sisterhood and all of those things… We struggled to find anything that spoke of the layperson that wants to create… So that was kind of the backbone of [the film]."
The fact that there is a felt need for documentaries such as this is telling. Our generation grows weary of organized religion as countless studies on Mass attendance and faith surveys show. This not only affects those leaving the faith but also influences the living faith of those remaining as the relationship between religion and secular culture becomes more tenuous. On the positive side, it is more clear that following Christ is a conscious choice made each day. This can give a deeper sense of purpose and camaraderie to those remaining (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...”) To fellow contrarians, this is excellent!
A fragile relationship between faith and secular cultures comes with inherent difficulties as well. T.S. Eliot notes some of these difficulties in his essay, “Notes towards the Definition of Culture”. Eliot sees religion and culture as naturally co-dependent. When the relationship begins to disintegrate, “Religious thought and practice, philosophy and art, all tend to become isolated areas cultivated by groups in no communication with each other. The artistic sensibility is impoverished by its divorce from the religious sensibility, the religious by its separation from the artistic.”
In the context of film, we see this play out in the modern “Christian movie” market that, without mentioning specific films, many see as an impoverished artform. While he is careful to not cast a blanket statement over all Christian movies, Murphy explained, “[It seems to me] that some of the Christian movies, I won’t say all, but some of them are a bunch of people who are taking advantage of the… Christian audience that wants to watch something good. And I really get offended by that… And they’re lining their pockets with millions of dollars off of this industry.”
Murphy’s film, while clearly Catholic throughout, has little relation to these. He credits the documentary format as being part of this distinction. He also has a broader view of what a Catholic film is. He discussed several films that, although not made by Catholics or even Christians, have inspired him. Murphy believes that these films, in their honest depiction of human life and reality, point towards hope and inevitably Christ.
St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” shares a similar message. While the ideal of artists must be a true depiction of goodness and beauty, the late pope recognizes that this road often leads through, “the valley of the shadow of death.” St. John Paul II observes, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”
A new vision
Murphy’s love for drama began at a young age and started blossoming as he attended film classes. Murphy explained, “When I was in high school and college, I took some classes… and I just fell in love with editing… [I realized that] this is really powerful… how image and sound and all this can just come together to give someone an experience. It is really moving, and I just fell in love with it. So any chance I got from then on, I would pick up a camera and try to make something.”
Murphy spent time on film crews but decided that he was not called to study film formally. He went to school for business and got a Master’s degree in ministry and religious education. He previously taught theology and currently works as director of campus ministry at his alma mater besides running his film production company Dark Roast Films. Here, he is able to maintain creative control and be selective about the projects that he undertakes.
A recently completed project has been one of his favorites and highlights what he loves about film. Murphy commented, “My grandma-in-law, she just turned 90 years old, and she is a great-great-grandma… She has eight children. All of the children are still alive and very involved in the family… Her family is still so all invested, and this grandma is still the nucleus of everything… I was asked by my mother-in-law to put a film together about her… It ended up being this 17 minute film about her… And to share that with them, and to watch it with them… And to watch with grandma, and to see the emotion, and how all of their stories and all of their feelings towards this one human came together into this piece that we are all able to have and experience… I’m getting goosebumps thinking about it, but that’s what [film] can do.”
He just finished the script for his next project entitled Windows, which is a drama about a young musician. Although not as explicitly religious as Masterpieces, he has found a home amidst the resurgent creative milieu of Catholic artists. Murphy concluded, “I’m really excited to see what the Church is doing with art. I feel like, maybe I am just waking up to it, but I also feel like there really has been a new renaissance of just great artwork and great materials and resources that are bringing people to their faith in authentic ways. And it is really exciting to be a very very small part of that. And I am really excited to see what happens moving forward and to see how many people are stepping up to the plate and taking ownership of their faith and their craft. It is an exciting time to be doing this stuff.”
More information on Cristian Murphy’s film production company can be found at https://www.darkroastfilms.org/, and more information on Masterpieces can be found at https://www.masterpiecesthefilm.com/. Masterpieces can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video and Formed.
“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
On a rainy Thursday evening in March amid compounding concerns of the COVID-19 about fifty people watched the formerly New York-based Catholic spoken word poet Clare McCallan perform. The show took place at Spacebar-- a former warehouse turned co-working office space located southwest of downtown Grand Rapids, Mi. that also hosts artists and musicians.
Spoken word poetry has a broad definition and attempts to democratize the classic idea of poetry, which is now perceived as elitist or comprehensible only to a few. Although poetry is meant to be heard, as the name suggests, spoken word poetry focuses heavily on the oral and performative aspects of the craft. McCallan encourages audience interaction and people could be heard laughing, “ahh-ing” in agreement, and snapping their fingers throughout the performance. Spoken word artists are known for their demonstrative displays of emotion and controversial topic choices. These characteristics make it so that many are surprised that McCallan is attempting to carve out a Catholic space in the genre.
This is a concern to which McCallan is sympathetic. Many of McCallan’s secular artist friends are scrupulous about speaking “their truth,” but few recognize Truth in the Catholic sense. Ultimately, their end goal is entertainment. Further, spoken word poetry is often associated closely with rap music that has its own set of negative connotations. McCallan explained, “The spoken word scene is [perceived as] a small tumour on the side of the huge rap scene, and whether it is poetry or rap almost 70 percent of the time what I am listening to I don’t agree with. Some of it really really bothers me especially when you get into the rap scene. A lot of it can be derogatory towards women… promoting guns and drugs… so that can be kind of painful, seeing people use gifts for the wrong things.”
As a Catholic, she has a different set of standards. McCallan explained, “Catholic art has to meet all three of the transcendentals. So it has to be true, beautiful, and good… If [my work] doesn’t hit all three of those, then I don’t propagate it. I don’t share it because I think that I as a Catholic artist have a responsibility to my audience. I also am of the belief that all work in order for it to be true has to be hopeful in some way because hope is the ultimate truth.”
Despite some of the difficulties of being a Catholic artist in a mostly secular artform, she feels called to continue her work and sees spoken word art in general as an excellent tool for the new evangelization.
“Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
McCallan traces her journey into spoken word poetry to the summer before her senior year of college at Franciscan University of Steubenville. That summer she did, in McCallan’s words, the, “very stereotypical backpacking alone through Europe thing,” which ignited her passion for travel. She returned to finish her bachelor’s degree in business while she and a friend began a blog about traveling on a budget that eventually took them on a winter vacation to Costa Rica. This was her first real foray into writing.
After graduating, she transitioned into writing more substantive pieces about her life experiences and short fictional narratives. During this time, she travelled and lived in different parts of the United States and even Calcutta, India where she spent time with St. Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity. In Calcutta, she initially took serious interest in spoken word poetry while she was bedridden with typhus.
McCallan believes spoken word poetry allows people to connect in unique ways. “To me it’s a very interpersonal artform and a connective artform because… my favorite thing, often to my audience’s dismay and discomfort, my favorite thing is to hold eye contact during my show. It is one of those rare forms of art where… you can really communicate with the people with zero distraction. There’s no one else up there with me. It’s… me talking in a way that is very intentionally supposed to be emotionally effective… It’s a very direct art of communication,” McCallan explained.
After Calcutta, she moved to New York City where she began performing at open mics at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, one of the world's most famous spots for spoken word poetry. Here, she had to get to the cafe hours before the event to reserve a five minute slot. She said she was visibly shaking throughout her first performance and for two hours afterwards, but she continued going back. While in New York, she was also working a variety of jobs including a retail position and as a director of religious education at a Catholic parish.
This past July, she discerned that God was calling her to spoken word poetry full time. She toured through different parts of the country with her work. She also lived in Plain, Washington for an artist residency where she created and memorized the performance for the Grand Rapids show. Being an poet full time came with a host of trials. McCallan stated, “There was an order of what would have to be sacrificed in order to make this dream a reality. And the first thing was a semblance of a social life, not that I had that much of it, but what I did have got thrown out. And then… not getting your nails done anymore, you’re not going to get your hair done anymore, you’re not going to buy clothes anymore, all your money needs to go to this. And then came time to quit the salaried job… And then came time to leave all the babysitting gigs and the dog walking… and then the last big sacrifice this required was getting rid of the apartment.”
Following the performance, she was heading to Boston and then supposed to be working on a poetry installation in Virginia.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1).
McCallan’s current tour is called “A Saturday Night Alone” and grapples with issues related to loneliness. Some of the pieces she performed focus on biblical characters dealing with isolation resulting from the mission God gave them such as Noah building the ark. The perspective in these often bounce between that of the biblical character and McCallan’s own life experiences. In this way, she demonstrates how the message of these biblical stories can infuse our lives today regardless of vast time and cultural distances between them.
Though loneliness can be a heavy topic, McCallan stayed true to her artistic standards and always allowed hope to have the final word. She encouraged audience members to invest in community and explained how shared service provides a strong foundation for bringing people together. Her work as a whole and the particular performance echoed St. John Paul II’s consistent message throughout his potificate to, “Be not afraid!”
While some may imagine that Catholicism would provide an assortment of roadblocks to being a spoken word poet, she sees her faith as a guiding light and inspiration for her work: “I just think that [Catholics] have the best cheat sheet ever with the transcendentals. [My work] does not need to rhyme, it doesn’t need to fit a schematic element. It just needs to be true, beautiful, and good.”
More info on McCallan can be found at her website: https://www.claremccallan.com/